John Francis Campbell

by Dan Casey - with thanks to Duncan Stewart and the Museum of Islay Life

John Francis CampbellFolklorists are perhaps perceived to be living in the shadows of the past, fanatical about preserving customs that are, they admit, fast fading. But folklorists aren't alone in lamenting the loss of tradition. Donny MacGillivary, the Islay Coaches driver on the morning run from Port Ellen to Port Askaig, explained: 'We're becoming a colourless, one world culture, a culture without soul. If you want my take on it, I'd say we're careering out of control.' Donny smiled before adding, 'Life was different in the old gods' time.' Outside Bridgend, he slowed the bus and gestured to the left, towards an obelisk standing on a rise above Loch Indaal. 'Now, there's your man. Iain Og Ile, Young John Francis Campbell. He spoke the Gaelic, and he had a passion for the old ways and old tales. The folk coming over from the college in Edinburgh tell me Iain Og's the grandmaster of Scottish folklore and, without him, we'd have no stories at all.'

History tells us that, in 1726, Daniel Campbell of Shawfield bought Islay for £12,000 and via his purchase became laird of the island. For 120 years the Shawfield Campbells ruled with impunity. John Francis, Daniel's great great great grandson, born in Edinburgh in 1821, was hereditary chieftain and heir to a diminishing family fortune. John's father was forced to sell Islay, but John never lost his love of the Islay people or their culture. In his introduction to volume one of 'Popular Tales of the West Highlands' [1860-62], John Campbell reflects: 'In the islands where the western wanderers settled down and where they have remained for centuries, old men and women are still found who have hardly stirred from their native islands, who speak only Gaelic, and cannot read or write, and yet their minds are filled with a mass of popular lore.'

At a time when Gaelic was despised as an inferior language of the poor, ignorant and superstitious, beneath the notice of gentlemen, Campbell sang the virtues of the language and the great literature it enshrined. Against Dr Johnson's pronouncement that Gaelic was 'the rude speech of a barbarous people,' Campbell championed it as a language 'rich in words which by their sound alone express ideas... a language full of metaphorical and descriptive expression.' He travelled through the Highlands and Islands with his scribes, scrupulously recording West Highland tales, Fenian ballads, songs, charms and anecdotes from 'the folk' - paupers, farmers, crofters, servants, boatmen, fishermen, travellers, labourers, foresters, drovers, gamekeepers, craftsmen, children and others whose speech, he said, echoed with a centuries old 'literary excellence.' An old man recounting a racy tale heard in his youth confessed to Campbell that he'd never worn shoes in his life. Another, who walked a long journey beside the indefatigable Campbell, recounted a wonder tale that the collector said took him 'several miles' to tell.

Campbell was a renaissance spirit - he was a barrister, a secretary to government commissions, a courtier to Queen Victoria and a scientific inventor of note. Among his designs was a self registering sundial. He studied and photographed glaciers, published books on geology and was something of an expert in the emerging field of optics. He was also a talented linguist who admitted to knowing Gaelic, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Lapp, Italian, Spanish and German. He travelled widely and, after 1857, followed his calling as a 'tradition bearer'. A self effacing man, Campbell never married and never sought fame and fortune. To many of his contemporaries, he was 'the man who followed the fairies'. To anthropologists and folklorists who followed him, he was a man on a mission, a voice in the wilderness, a pioneer blazing new trails.

John Francis CampbellJohn G McKay, who translated Campbell's tales from Gaelic, maintained that he was singularly responsible for rescuing hundreds of vanishing tales from obscurity. McKay tells us: 'Many of the tales are novel in theme or plot, and on that account it is difficult to overestimate their value from either the literary or scientific point of view. They constitute a mine of virginal material, unique, refreshing, and in some cases almost startling.' The range of tales collected by Campbell and his helpers include Aesop type fables, epic legends, fairy stories and fantasies. The popular Fenian or Ossianic tales, set in the third to fifth centuries AD, tell of the passing of the old guard - from the pagan Ossian, son of the legendary Fionn MacCool, to the Christian saint Patrick - and exciting variations of them have survived in the oral literature of the people.

In August 1859, Hector MacLean [one of Campbell's band of helpers] transcribed a version on Barra that began like this: 'Oisean was an old man after the Feen, and he dwelling in the house of his daughter. He was blind, deaf and limping, and there were nine oaken skewers in his belly, and he ate the tribute that Padraig had over Eirinn. They were then writing the old histories that he was telling them.' The tale goes on, in the Barra storyteller's voice, to recount how Ossian is challenged and mocked by the warriors of the Fianna, who insinuate that he is a liar, and how he flies into a rage and sets his great book afire. His daughter manages to quench the flame and save the book, but Ossian, hero that he is, cannot abide the insult and plots revenge. Though aged and blind, he enlists the aid of a lad and a dog from the Fianna to prove his case and restore his reputation. With their help, Ossian staggers out into a glen where he performs prodigious feats of hunting and where he consumes the flesh of six stags. But when he discovers that the lad accompanying him has eaten a third of his portion, he has the lad lead him back to his daughter's house, whereupon he strangles him. Ossian reenters the house vindicated, bearing a trophy to prove he is no liar. He vows never to tell another tale to his doubters.

Campbell's storytellers reach back to antiquity and lay bare the Celtic psyche. Though recognition came late and his efforts were largely unappreciated by the academic world, his reputation has grown since his death. His work has influenced major Scottish writers such as George Mackay Brown; and the four volumes of 'Popular Tales' and 'More Tales', republished with additional material in 1940, have sparked renewed interest in his work. Neil Philip's more recent 'Penguin Book of Scottish Folktales', with its generous selection of these tales, reaffirms Campbell's staying power. Since Campbell's time, when the population of Islay was 15,000 and the vast majority of people were Gaelic speakers with stories of their own, Highland and Island life and language have changed dramatically. Today a majority of Islay's 3,400 souls are monolingual English speakers, with few stories to tell. Donny MacGillivary, the bus driver, was right: 'Life was different in the old gods' time.' And, but for John Francis Campbell, we'd probably know far less about that time and less about the old gods. In his later years, he found his way to the south of France, where he died in 1885. He lies under a replica of Islay's treasured Kildalton cross in a quiet cemetery in Cannes.

The Popular Tales of the West Highlands on the Islay Blog

Islay History | Standing Stones | Finlaggan | Islay Carved Stones | The Campbells | Walter Campbell | John Francis Campbell | Islay Clearances | Leaving Islay | Islay Genealogy | Islay in 1703 | 1869 Baptist Letter | Islay Shipwrecks | Exmouth Tragedy | Troopship Tuscania | Otranto and Tuscania | Dougie MacDougall | Ferry History | Cultoon and Ballinaby | Sunderland Flying Boat Tragedy | Kilchoman Bards


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